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Brundibár (English)
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- Brundibár:To Perform or Not

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Critical Report

Brundibár 2002
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Brundibár: To Perform or Not

A unique history of performances has made the problematical opera Brundibar, written in Prague in the pivotal year 1938, a venerable treasure: "Musik an der Grenze des Lebens" (Music on the Brink of Life), the affecting title of Milan Kuna's book serves here to give only a hint of the opera's status. One would not want carelessly to forgo the prospect of performing such a treasure in ever increasing new stagings.

My challenge to banish the opera to a museum, in a figurative sense, is hardly misconstrued. The opera ought to be performed in such a way that historical distance, founded on scholarship and criticism, is established and maintained. In Theresienstadt, for example, by students of a seminar on concentration camp culture; within the scope of a documentary film; or, as it recently was, in a very respected and well-documented (on the internet: http://www.bth.at/~amadeusknabenchor/kritik/brundibar99.htm) Viennese production, where, set within an overarching structure of persecution and extermination, the children of Theresienstadt are herded into a railroad car and, on their way to their deaths, perform their beloved opera one last time. An opportunity to portray alienation on an epic scale, à la Brecht, springs to mind.

Opera for children, theater for children, however, is different. "Distance" is not practicable here. Child actors identify themselves with their roles without question, as do the children in an audience. They dream and suffer on an immediate level along with the characters and adopt that which is acted out as a pattern for their own lives. Thus it is intolerable to let them take part in a play where 300 hunt down, humiliate and banish a peripheral loner, dependent as he is on the maintenance of law and order; further, the plot imparts to the children that, even as they are hounding in on this loner, they are just doing what the heroic and angelic victims of the horrendous Hitler years did. No, with due respect to the good will behind such children's performances, all this must be put to an end; such versions of Brundibar no longer belong on the stage.

Must it really be so? Aren't more free, more critical, more reflective productions thinkable, productions that retain the opera's specialness as a testament to the formidable will to live and an incomparable opportunity for a more playful sort of Holocaust remembrance and yet do not succumb to the opera's dangerous, utterly unpedagogic tendency to evoke the spirit of 1938?

Let us recall what from today's perspective seem the fatal weaknesses of the opera's origin and ask whether a differently moulded, unconventional production could "save" the opera.

Put simply, one could perhaps say that the basic fault of the opera, back to which lead all its misanthropic and spurious tendencies, is its half-hearted attempt at Realism. The plot is, in the end, really more of a fairy-tale: part Hansel-and-Gretel, replete with bogeymen. At the same time, the plot takes on the "modern" adult world, but not with any political consequences. Rather, the plot actually steers away from politics as a means for problem solving, and instead relies on the tried and true patterns that establish the outsider as scapegoat and catalyst for the healthily aggressive children's perspective. It is the latter that lies at the heart of the opera's inhumanity. Is it possible that a critical and reflective production comes to terms with this inhumanity?

I see two possibilities. For the first, inspired by the Brundibar caricature [found on the opera's piano score title page: see "Brundibár: Karikatur und Titel", click on the left side] I suggest that a production try to reproduce this character, as he is, that is, as a relic of pre-faschist times, and establish him as the quintessential victim of mob violence. Hoffmeister's caricature of Krasa could be the model; the hero of the Czech "Pan-Tau" series would be an ideal casting, as would Robin Williams or Armin Mueller-Stahl. The production would then revolve around a kind of witch hunt or pogrom, this time with the children as the "bad guys." At the end, the children would somehow be given insight into their actions and sing the final chorus together with Brundibar, who would accompany the singing with his barrel organ.

This would serve the concoction of 1938 right. But who would want to produce this? The production that one wants to perform and to see is the one governed by the spirit of the Theresienstadt children, highlighting their will to live, their fate. But it is exactly here that productions that wish to uphold historical truth fail. Inevitably, because the message here is that the victims played this out; they put one of their kind on the pillory. All of this puts excessive demands on the thinking of the children on stage and in the audience as well as diverts from the essential issues.

Perhaps one should head down the opposite direction and attempt a production that focuses on the fairy-tale nature of the plot, abandoning "real" people of a particular time period. Here I see the Brundibar figure transformed into a wandering, intelligent Juke box, which at times fascinates people, and at times really gets on their nerves (as well as on the nerves of the dog, whose urge to bite Brundibar would then finally be given a proper motive, not to mention a comic touch, seeing as his bite would do no good). At times, the Juke box would even prevent the people from singing themselves. This up-to-date version of the opera might really speak to children, and would still come to terms with issues that lie at the heart of the opera (though connections would certainly have to be made to Theresienstadt reception: the cultivation of indigenous culture in the face of Nazi propaganda; the overcoming of the fear of machines and technology; the machinery that threatens life itself). Such a production would illucidate and attack these issues, not a living person.